Toxic Workplace

6 Effective Tactics for Handling a Toxic Boss

Salvaging your dignity from an abusive boss is a job all its own.
6 Effective Tactics for Handling a Toxic Boss
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7 min read
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Do you work under a bully? The easiest way to answer this question is to check in on how you feel. If you feel intimidated, frustrated and dread going into the office because you be belittled, humiliated, ignored and cut down, you are in a hostile work environment.

Typically, bosses who bully are under tremendous pressure, love control and feed off of two things -- emotional reaction and attention. They thrive on the power they have to manipulate others. Unfortunately, the toxic boss may produce success from inducing fear in their employees, but they will also prove to have a shorter shelf-life when it comes to long term success.

Just know that you’re not alone. The number one reason people leave their job is because they don’t like their boss. A toxic boss exists in nearly every work environment in corporate America. A survey in 2017 by the Workplace Bullying Institute defined this sort of workplace emotional abuse as the “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees or boss; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse." The survey found that:

  • 61 percent of Americans are aware of the bullying that takes place in their workplace.
  • 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying.
  • Bosses comprise 61 percent of bullies.
  • 65 percent of bullied employees lost their original jobs when they tried to stop the bullying.

Most importantly, nearly 40 percent of people targeted by a bully experience stress-related health problems including debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and clinical depression (39 percent).

1. Shift your focus from your boss to your job.

A bully is unlikely to change their behavior, so your first option is to work to change yours. Instead of focusing on the boss who is trying to intimidate you, focus only on the details and tasks of your role. You have direct control over your performance, so make sure you are focused on the right thing, which is your job not your boss.

The more emotional power you give your toxic boss, the more your boss will focus on you as a target. A bully is more interested in reading your vibe than analyzing your performance. If your boss never gets your eye contact he/she never gets the invitation to come into your emotional space. When you focus solely on the tasks of your role you stop giving off the vibe of fear and anxiety over gaining approval from your boss.

Related: Is Your Boss a Bully? New Research Says There's a Surprising Reason Why.

2. Understand the bully.

The boss who is a bully at his/her core is an insecure, manipulative person who throws tantrums. They are selfish and immature. Most of you would not put up with this type of behavior in your own children and should not tolerate this type of treatment from your boss. The problem is your boss has a significant amount of control over your position. For this reason, you cannot meet fire with fire.

Toxic bosses manipulate their demand-arsenal so rapidly that it makes it difficult to meet their expectations or correctly follow their direction. It is a good practice to take detailed notes with times, dates and details of conversations you have had with your boss. This helps you stay on task. You will have evidence of what was said and requested, when and on what date, when your boss makes a move to gaslight you on what you think you’re supposed to be doing. Keeping this log available helps you stay grounded in the facts and out of the fire of emotional drama.

These notes also keep your boss in check with the fear that you may report him/her to human resources. Taking notes allows you to stay organized and to call your toxic boss out on your terms.

Related: The 6 Most Familiar 'Bad Boss' Types and What to Do About Them

3. Set silent limits

Body language is a great way to silently but effectively deal with a boss who is a bully. Turn your body away from your boss every chance you get. Give your boss the side of your body or the back of your body at all times. When you have to be face-to-face with your boss, focus on lifting your chest and your chin. This posture gently but firmly communicates that you’re open to talk and not intimidated.

Bullies love to see people cower. When your toxic boss aggressively comes after you it is natural to cower; this posture will take over immediately when under siege of emotions like shame or humiliation. When you focus on your body language you covertly give yourself the upper hand. Your toxic boss will pick up on you having a stronger vibe and they will naturally respond less aggressively. Body language is a more powerful communicator than words which the bully can turn around and use against you; body language cannot.

Related: Do You Have a Bad Boss? Here's What to Look For. (Infographic)

4. Set verbal limits.

Analyze how your boss treats you from an objective place. Make a list of the facts. You will say less and get more accomplished when you approach your boss with facts and a strong physical posture. The more nervous we are the more we tend to talk. When you have facts you will set better limits. You can stick to the facts without trying to convince your boss of anything or squeeze any empathy or understanding from him/her.

Knowledge is power and facts are the knowledge you need. You must let your boss know you will no longer tolerate the negative facts on your list in terms to how you’re being treated. If your boss argues or starts acting out, leave the conversation and escalate to the person above your boss. Tell your boss that since he/she is unable to communicate rationally that you will be addressing your concerns elsewhere.

Related: How Successful People Overcome Toxic Bosses

5. Build a network.

It is important to keep in communication with other employees who are also targets of your boss’s poor treatment. Encourage your coworkers to document dates, times and conversations they have with your boss. The more people involved in documenting the facts the stronger the case you give to human resources to intervene and possibly seek to further train or terminate your toxic boss. The more evidence that is brought into human resources from multiple people the clearer the pattern of abuse is to diagnose and treat.

6. Tell management and HR about the bully's behavior.

Let your superiors and human resources know, through your documentation and meetings with your coworkers and boss, that you have done all you can do on your own to cope with and abate your boss’s flagrantly abusive behavior. Explain the impact the bullying has had on your physical, emotional and mental health along with how it has negatively impacted your work performance. File a formal complaint and allow human resources to instigate an investigation. In the meantime you may need to take a paid leave so as to avoid even more abuse once your boss is made aware that he/she is being investigated, or if possible, continue to work as you always have and give your boss the chance to show some change.

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